The forgotten history of Polabian Slavs

Polabian Slavs” is a name for the group of Slavic tribes that had once inhabited the area around the river Elbe. The Elbe is a major river of central Europe. It flows through the modern Czech Republic and Germany. “Elbe” (in Latin Albis) probably means “white”. The Germanic name for Polabian Slavs (Slavs around the Elbe) was Wends – from Celtic “vento” – “white”. Polabian Slavs shared their territory with numerous other nations, mainly Celtic and Gaulic. But in this article, we will focus only on the Slavs.

The Polabian Slavs

Once a large confederation of independent tribes, Polabian Slavs were gradually assimilated into France, Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, and other neighboring countries. Today, all that remains of this vast nation are the Sorbs of Lusatia. Their territory is divided between Germany and Poland.

Nowadays, a greater part of Lusatia lies on the territory of German countries of Saxony and Brandenburg. But their original territory once included almost one-third of modern German lands, including the cities of Berlin, Dresden, and Leipzig. Germanization started already in the early middle ages. Today, only around 60,000 Sorbs of Lusatia live on a tiny fraction of the territory they once occupied.

Sorbian_Lusatian.png
The decline of Sorbian-speaking territories. Wikipedia commons

Besides Sorbs, there were several other Slavic tribes to the north. The map below shows the original Slavic lands before the 10th century, now almost completely Germanized. The yellow line follows the course of the river Elbe to the North and the Sorbian March (Limes Sorbicus) to the south.

Genetics confirms this Slavic assimilation. According to Eupedia, dominant Slavic haplogroup R1a is the second dominant haplogroup in the Eastern and Northern parts of Germany. For this reason, Eupedia inserts the word “Germanic” between Balto-Slavic and Iranian. But only the R1b is a real Germanic haplogroup. This is obvious from the samples of other Germanic countries.

On this chart we see that one out of four modern Germans of the east and north Germany have Slavic origin; one out of ten in the other parts. The assimilation of Slavs started around the 10th century but ended only around the twelfth. History knows these events as the Wendish crusade.

The questionable Slavic migration to western Europe

So far, we saw only facts, and very few will disagree with them. The real disagreements start only with the question of Slavic arrival to Western Europe. For example, Wikipedia claims that Polabian Slavs arrived in modern Germany in the 6th century. In the 9th century, they were conquered by Saxons and Danes, included in the Holy Roman Empire, and Germanized. A similar version appears on Wikipedia article on Wends.

The idea that Slavs are newcomers who settled among the Germans is bizarre. We just saw that the Frankish and Germanic conquest of the Slavic territories is a historical fact. It was not the other way around, at least not in the recorded history.

Moreover, this theory is seriously challenged by the latest genetic and linguistic research. It seems that it was the bearers of R1a who first settled the northern parts of Europe. Eupedia article on R1a states the following:

The first major expansion of R1a was the westward propagation of the Corded Ware (or Battle Axe) culture (2800-1800 BCE) from the Yamna homeland. The R1a people would have mixed with the pre-Germanic I1 and I2 aborigines, resulting in the first Indo-European culture in Germany and Scandinavia. But the culture could not be considered Proto-Germanic – it was simply Proto-Indo-European at that stage, or perhaps Proto-Balto-Slavic.

The percentage of R1a in modern western Slavic countries is around 50% or more, depending on the country. And as we saw, R1a arrived in Europe already around 2,800 BC. This is quite clear from the text. After that, it seems that he gets a bit confused. He labels I1 and I2 as pre-Germanic aborigines but then emphasizes that they were not Germanic at all, but PIE or Proto-Balto-Slavic. (!)

In short, there is no reason to have the word “Germanic” in this text whatsoever, unless you are trying to fit modern genetic research in the outdated version of history.

The text continues:

Germanic languages probably did not appear before the Nordic Bronze Age (1800-500 BCE). Proto-Germanic language probably developed as a blend of two branches of Indo-European languages, namely the Proto-Balto-Slavic language of the Corded-Ware culture (R1a-Z283) and the later arrival of Proto-Italo-Celto-Germanic people from the Unetice culture (R1b-L11).

In short, Germanic languages are a mix of the older Proto-Balto-Slavic and younger Proto-Italo-Celtic-Germanic people. Who came first to Western Europe in that case?

In the second half of this article, we will deal with this question. But to do so we will have to leave the mainstream history and speculate on the alternative versions.

Lutici, from Germany to Belgium and France

The northern neighbor of Lusitanian Sorbs was the Lutici tribe, now extinct. They first appear in historical records of the 9th century. The German town Lütjenburg (Lutici-hillfort) still carries the name of this tribe. The highlighted English Wikipedia briefly mentions that the city was taken from Slavs in the 12th century. The German Version adds that Saxo Grammaticus mentions it as “Liuticha” but that it belonged to Wagri, another Slavic tribe. However “Wagrian” was just a Scandinavian label for Lutichi, this was certainly not a Slavic name. From the same root comes the words Varangian, and these were the notorious “viking” founders of the first Rus state.

The Lutici territory in modern-day Germany, Wikipedia commons

Anyhow, Lutici were a strong and important tribe with many warriors and a large fleet, used for both war and commerce. And it is quite possible that they had a much wider area of influence than normally thought. For example, the Belgian city Liege (German: Lüttich) is probably named after them. This theory is more popular among Slavic authors. The “official” etymology, claims a Germanic origin:

“Germanic in origin, reconstructible as *liudik-, from *liudiz “people”, found in Dutch lui(den), lieden, German Leute”.

But if the modern German word for people is Leute, while “liudi” (lyudi) means “people” in virtually all Slavic languages, can this etymology really be “reconstructible” as Germanic?

Moreover, Belgium got its name from the Belgae tribe. But this is just a Latinized form of the name “Volga”. One of their most important cities was Samarobriva (modern Amiens) in the Belgian valley of the Samara. This is the same toponym as the Samara of the Volga river. The word “briva” apparently means “bridge” in Gaulic, but its Slavic equivalent is “brvno“. What was the Belgae origin then?

Another Belgian tribe was Bellovaci. Wikipedia article translates this name as “white” in “Indo-European”. But “Bel” means “white” in Slavic languages, and the “ov” and “aci” are both typical Slavic suffixes. Moreover, Belovaci is the name of a valley in modern-day Serbia.

The Belovaci territory stretched between the French city of Beauvais and the Oise River, some 70-80km from Paris. Paris owes its name to the Parisii tribe, but its older, Roman name was Lutetia.

Wikipedia article on Lutici offers different variations of the spelling of their name throughout history. We see that options Leutici, Leuticians, Leutizi and Leutizans were also popular in both, Latin and German. Could we then assume that even the ancient name of Paris – Lutetia, could come from this tribe? The origin of this word remains unresolved to this day.

Other Slavic tribes of Gaule

The famous university of Sorbonne was founded by Robert de Sorbon in the 13th century. However, it is not this Parisian university that is interesting for our story, but the village of Sorbon where Robert was born, situated halfway between Paris and Liege. Can we connect this toponym with the Lusatian Sorbs? Not too far from Sorbon is the village Péron, and Perun was the Slavic god of thunder.

There are numerous similar examples, but we will only focus on the names of the Gaulish tribes, as recorded by the Romans. Here is a map on which all of such tribal names are underlined for easier reference.

Atrebates – Trzebowianie

Not much is known of Atrebates. They also appear in Britain. Wikipedia mentions a plausible etymology from proto-Celtic *ad-treb-ates – ‘inhabitants’. The root word is *treb – home, building.

But the fact is that their name sounds similar to that of the Slavic Trzebowianie (Trebouane, Třebované). Unfortunately, only the Polish Wikipedia article is available, but this article lists some thirty Slavic toponyms in Poland and Czech republic connected to this tribe. In Slavic too, the root *treb meant “a grassy clearance (in the forest) – dwelling”, from “trava” – grass, or “trebiti” – “to clear”… Another name of the Slavic tribe, Travnjane, probably relates to the same people.

The alternative theory is that the root “treb” designated sacrificial altars. In any case, Slavic origins of this word are confirmed by additional 20-30 toponyms on the Balkans, for example, Trebinje, Bosnia, or Trebeništa, Macedonia.

Lexovii – Leshovians

Lexovii dwelled on the coast, a part of Gallia that served as the crossing point to Brittain, and near the mouth of river Seine. Their neighbors were Veneti and their capital was in modern-day Lisieux. As for their name, scholars propose an etymology “of god Lug”. But this is the same reasoning behind the name of Lusatian Sorbs. The word “Lusatian” comes from Slavic “lug”, wetlands, swamp.

However, I believe that their name is closer to Lechites, in different sources also (Lestkowici, Lechi, Lehi). They are ancestors of Polabian Slavs, Pomeranians and modern Poles (Lechs in medieval sources).

As a curiosity, the capital of the Lexovii was Noviomagus, which meant “new market” and mirrors Serbian “Novi Pazar“.

Nervii – Neuri

The etymology of Nervii is unknown. But since the Latin “V” could also designate “U”, perhaps the original name was Nerui. Perhaps, this name sounds similar to Neuri, a Sarmatian tribe.

Veneti – Wendi

Numerous Slavic authors claim that the name “Veneti”, just like “Wendi”, designated Slavs. They also believe that these Veneti are the same as those of Adriatic, neighboring Slovenia. However, western scholars do not support this view. They consider Veneti of the north to be Gauls and Veneti of Adriatic “Indo-European”.

But there was also a third group of Veneti – Vistula Veneti. They lived in the Bay of Gdansk, modern Poland. The first mention is from the 1st century AD and the 6th-century Byzantian historians consider them as ancestors of Slavs. These Veneti were sometimes also labeled Venedi, and associations with the German “Wend” are obvious. Moreover, Ptolemy calls a part of the Baltic Sea “Venedic”, in the 2nd century AD.

What was the opinion of the ancient authors? Tacitus, in Germania, writes that the Veneti are similar to Sarmatians in appearance and customs, except that their lifestyle is not nomadic. For this reason, only, he thinks that it is better to call them Germanic. (Germania, chapter 46)

As for the Veneti of the Adriatic, Polybius writes that they are similar to celts in appearance and customs, but that their language is completely different. (Plb. 2.17)

Slavic toponyms of the Gaulic Veneti

The French city Brest lies on the territory of Gaulish Veneti. Its etymology is unknown. But Brest is one of the most common Slavic toponyms. Wikipedia lists some fifteen examples – including Brest, the city (and region) in Belarus, and numerous other examples from Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Poland… even a few German ones, in the previously Slavic lands. Slavic etymology relates to the tree: birch or elm.

Another example is Pleuven (Pluwenn). Apparently, the word is Brittonic and the root *pleu means “parish”. It is a very popular toponym in this French region. We also see variations Plovan, Ploeven and Pléven. But Pleven is also an important Bulgarian city. There is Plevlja in Montenegro too. The slavic word means “barn”, from pleva – chaff.

The French city Trégarvan, apparently comes from the root *treb, dwelling. It is also a popular toponym and we see variations such as Trégueux and Tréguier But I don’t see how the “b” sound from *treb become “g”. More likely, it comes from the Slavic trg, meaning marketplace. This word is exclusively Slavic, but even near the Adriatic Veneti we have the Italian city of Trogir. The name of the Italian city was recorder already in antiquity – when there shouldn’t be Slavs in this region. For this reason, scholars try to translate it with Greek *tragos, male goat (?) or tregu, three stones. But the name is clearly Slavic, as evident from numerous Slavic toponyms, such as Trgovište. Here are seven examples of such toponyms from Wikipedia.

And in Pleslin-Trigavou and Tréglamus (Treglaffus in 1581) we see the name of Slavic god Triglav.

These were just a few illustrations. Due to the limited space, we will not list all of them. But it is clear that these names are both Slavic and Pre-Roman.

Aremorio, Morini – Pomeranians

The names of the tribes Aremorio and Morini mean “those who live next to the sea”. The same is true for Slavic Pomeranians, except that in the Slavic case we have an example of actual people, who still exist. Of course, this fact alone could be just a coincidence, but it is interesting from the perspective that the Baltic Sea was “Venedic”.

Catali – Catalauni

But if the Veneti of Adriatic and those of Gaul are indeed unrelated, it would be interesting to know why the Catalauni of the north Gaul have a similar name to Venetic Catali of Adriatic. (modern Veneto, Italy). Wikipedia claims that Catalauni means “shining in battle”, and I find this name a bit bizarre. Catalauni, in my opinion, means Catali + Alauni (ie Alani), who lived in Illyria of those days and migrated further north.

The name of Catalonia could also come from here.

Cenomani – Cenomani

Just like in the case of Veneti, the tribe of Cenomani existed both, in the north Gaul and on Adriatic. Apparently, historians can’t agree if these were the same people. But now we have three tribes that match. Could it really be possible that it just a coincidence?

Moreover, the capital of Cenomani was Vindunum or Vindinium in Roman sources.

Boii and Tarbelli – Boii and Triballi

In the western region of Aquitania, we see the tribe Boii. Now, when it comes to this tribe, no historian will deny that they moved in a vast geographical area that borders Aquitania, North Italy, Balkan Pannonia (modern Serbia) and Bohemia, Czech Republic. Bohemia is named after them. So even if the previous three examples were dubious, their migration is an indisputable fact.

Next to Boii we see the tribe Tarbelli. Their capital was Dax. Interestingly, no one connects these names with Triballi and Dacians of the Balkans, even though it is precisely them who were the neighbors of Boii. For Byzantine authors, the term Tribal is a synonym for Serbs.

Another tribe of this region, Ausci, was probably of Basque origin.

Diablintes – Jabloni

Diablintes, neighbors of Cenomani are not on this map. French Wikipedia claims that the city Jublains preserves their name. In this case, the original word started with “ZH” or “DY” sound, impossible to write in Latin. And the word could relate to Polish name Jablonski, from “jablon” apple tree. There are at least three such toponyms in Slavic countries today.

Carnautes – Carni

French Wikipedia draws a parallel between Carnautes and Carni, who lived around Kranj, modern Slovenia. Its German name was Krainburg and the Slavic etymology probably comes from “krajina” meaning “border” (with Fanks). This is a common Slavic toponym that we see even in the name of modern Ukraine.

Indeed, if we look at the map of Gaul, we see that all potential Slavic tribes are “grouped” – they all occupy the coastal area. And Carnautes could have defined the northern border with Frankish tribes, just like the Carni of the south.

On this Wikipedia map of Cisalpine Gaul, we see that many northern tribes were really present on the Adriatic: Cenomani, Boi, Senoni, Veneti, and Carni. Some of them arrived here with Brennos, leader of the Senones (people of the Seine river) in the 4th century BC. French Wikipedia lists three etymologies of his name. According to one, it means “crow, raven”, or “Vrana” in Slavic.

Galia Cisalpina of Adriatic, Wikipedia commons

Andecaves and Namnetes – Samoyedic tribes?

Andécaves gave name to the modern city of Anjou. Its medieval name was Angers. Once again, it seems that in Latin language, the original sound “zh” was impossible to write. If we assume that the root was “Anzhe..” we find a match in Russian town Anzhero-Sudzhensk. ( АНЖЕРО-СУДЖЕНСК). Interestingly, the etymology of this name is Selkup (Samoyedic),\ and comes from ang – mouth and gi (гы) – river.

The neighboring Namnetes lived around modern Nantes, who was named after them. Interestingly, both of these words sound like Nenets, another name for the Samoyedic people of Siberia. Ptolemy labeled Nantes as “Condevincum” which meant “confluence”. (similar to Anzher). Moreover, there is a city Sibiril in this region of France.

Samoyedic people are distant cousins of the Scandinavian Sami. This is an interesting discovery and deserves further research.

Seurbi Lusitani of Portugal and Lusitanian Sorbs of Germany

So far we have analyzed only the tribes of Roman Gaul. But even on the map of the pre-Roman tribes of Iberia, we see a region called Lusitania, and a tribe of Seurbi in it. And yet no historian dares to connect them to Lusitanian Sorbs of Germany. Why? Because this map depicts Portugal of 6-2nd century BC!

According to mainstream history, Lusitanian Sorbs arrived in Germany from someplace east, not west – about 1,000 years later.

Wikipedia article on Lusitania states that the etymology of “Lusitani” is not clear. Scholars agree only that they were Indo-European speakers, and they settled here around the 6th century BC. Everything else is a mystery. But could this “Indo-European” language perhaps be Proto-Slavic? And are the Lusatian Seurbi related to Lusitanian Sorbs? The Slavic term “Lusitanian” comes from “lug”, meaning forest, swamp.

Moreover, are these Seurbi and Albiones related to Serbs and Albanians of the Balkans? Remember, both “Elbe” and “Wend” mean white. So does the word “alba”.

The city of Salamanca, bordering with the territory of Lusitania, was known as Salmatica by the Romans. Its etymology is unclear. But if we revert back the rhotacism in which R becomes L, characteristic for this region, we get the word Sarmatica.

Whoever the Lusatians were, once the Roman armies arrived on the Iberian peninsula, they had no choice but to migrate towards the east. To the west, there was only the ocean. Indeed, Rome had many brutal campaigns against them. In the words of Strabo:

The country north of the Tagus, Lusitania, is the greatest of the Iberian nations, and is the nation against which the Romans waged war for the longest times.

Conclusions

Medieval chronicles state that Polabian Slavs did not have a king, but rather an “assembly of free men”. In other words, it was a very democratic society where most of the members of the tribe could vote. In the case of alliance with other tribes, the voting would happen again between the tribal representatives. This system had its advantages but was extremely vulnerable to Roman tactics “divide and conquer”.

The Frankish and Germanic rulers, successors of the Roman Empire, had used the same tactics. In many cases, divided Slavic tribes would do most of the dirty work themselves. Without clear leadership, Polabian Slavs were fighting between themselves, or fighting with Germany against France or Poland, or fighting with France against Germany… In the end, their formidable force was dissolved. They were Germanized, their territory was taken, their name was forgotten… And judging by recent history, modern Slavs did not learn much from these lessons.

But as we saw, it is quite likely that Slavic tribes once extended much further to the west, prior to the Roman arrival. They mainly occupied the coastal areas, from Russia to Poland, and from Germany to France and Portugal. Indeed, it is a fact that Polabian Slavs had strong fleets, just like Veneti of Adriatic.

Once the Roman Empire crumbled, Merovingians took control of France. Some authors relate this dynasty to the Slavic tribe of Moravichi (neighbors of Lusatian Sorbs and Lutici) Interestingly, in those days there weren’t serious hostilities between Franks and Polabian Slavs. Merovingians considered themselves “Sicambrians”. Historians connect these Sicambri with Cimbri. As usual, their origins are presumably Germanic, even though there is no firm evidence for such claims. However, Diodorus Siculus wrote in the 1st century BC:

Those who are called Lusitanians are the bravest of all Cimbri

The reign of Merovingians was a surprisingly short one, and their dynasty was replaced by that of Charlemagne – “the father of Europe”, a man who will reshape forever the borders of the old continent, and restore once again the power of Rome. He will expand his territory even beyond the river Elbe to the East and as far as Serbs of the Balkans to the south.

From this period onward, Polabian Slavs had a choice to migrate further towards east or south or to become assimilated in German and French nations. Should we then be surprised that their history needed to be forgotten?

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9 COMMENTS

  1. Nice write up! I have to comment, I think it’s remarkable that in this same Lusitania region of Portugal, there’s a prominent, and ancient city named Braga.

    This is extremely close to the Czech spelling of the capital city Prague, which in Czech is spelled Praha but you also sometimes see rendered as Praga (in German, Prag). Indeed, if you read Old Czech documents from 1,000+ years ago, it’s not uncommon to see the city’s named spelled Fraga or indeed, Braga.

    It would not surprise me in the least, based on what you’ve written here, to learn of some kind of connection between Braga, Portugal and Praha, Czech Republic.

  2. It’s interesting as well that in this Lusitania there’s a major city named Braga.

    Braga is in fact one of the older, more archaic toponyms for the capital city of Prague .. which is spelled Praha in Czech, but can also be rendered as Praga, or more anciently, Fraga and/or Braga.

  3. I am Serbian and my native language is Serbian. In Serbia we call Lusitanian Sorbs – Lužički Srbi which means “Serbs from the woods”. As for etymology of Lutici, in Serbia we call them Ljutići, the first association that comes to native Serbian speakers mind is “angry crowd” or “angry tribe” since “ljut” in Serbian means angry and suffix “ići” represents affiliation with the tribe (check my second name, if I put “i” on the end of it, it would represent affiliation with the larger tribe).
    Thanks for great article!

  4. If indeed german dna is a hybrid of celtic, latin, and slavic dna etc. Then you can form a picture in your mind of all these different people migrating north together as ice sheets melted and opened up new lands.these new lands may have been a melting pot of smaller tribal groups very racially different from one another but not yet vying for territory resulting in war. And the modern scandinavian/german population coming out of this. Only after thousand of years of hybridization and environmental conditioning in the north does the migration period start and the people of the scandinavian peninsula move south forming allegiances or making enemies with some of their slavic cousins on the way through. Also remember that a lot of peoples would have been displaced when land was lost in sea levels rising in the neolithic period. One can only imagine the complexity of cultures moving and mixing in the late neolithic and early bronze age only to turn south again when rome let down the boarders. Thank you for your article, its opened up some more probable theories for my ideas of ancient European migrations.

  5. There are 2 kings in the early history of the region: Ariamir and Miro, both of them were Suevic (Suebian)Kings of Galicia, sound Slavic to me.

  6. My last name is Lutic and the family originates from Northern Bukovina, a region currently in Ukraine. Probably the surname comes from the Lutici tribe but …
    I understand that in Ukraine there is a blue flower that grows in the wheat chains whose name is lutical or something similar. I do not know the Ukrainian language so I cannot confirm or deny this information.
    In Romanian there is the word “lut” which means clay

  7. Anyone here have these same genes? R1A-Z280; R-524902; R-YP561; R-YP564; R-YP658; to R-BY27212. I am trying to research my deep ancestry and looking for any matches or close matches (R-YP658).

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